Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch - Guest Post!

To this day, one of my very favorite depictions of a Bull Shark - Walker's Cay, Bahamas. Click for detail.

What to say about a guy one has never met.
Jeremy and I go way, way back when we miraculously managed to somehow always just miss each other, be it in the Sudan during the glorious times of Jack Jackson and Alex Double with their Stormbringer servicing the spartan diving camp on Sanganeb, in PNG on Bob and Dinah's legendary Telita or much later, on Gary and Brenda's iconic Walker's Cay.
Anyway, I've known of him forever, as a great trailblazing Shark photographer way back then where taking those pics was tough and as one of the good guys who has always combined his love and his respect of Sharks with the unbridled scientifically inspired curiosity of a true naturalist, as it should be. I also associate him with concepts like gentleman adventurer, renaissance man and patron of the Shark Trust, something that is purely intuitive and not substantiated and something I suspect he would deny - but if not strictly correct, it is certainly not far from the truth.
Plus and most importantly, he vocally shares my visceral distaste of the knightly Ueber-Charlatan, and (!) he ranks way low in the infamous CDNN list, and this for being a Shark feeding green-washer, much like my dear friend Douglas with whom he is apparently being confused.

How can I then not like and respect the man!
Anyway, we were talking and he asked whether I might be interested in a short piece about Shark photography.Needless to say that I jumped at the opportunity and that I'm totally honored!
So there, enjoy our first ever guest blog post!

On Photographing Sharks

By Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch

I admit that I’m a Luddite.
When I was first pho
tographing sharks everything was manual. There were 4 knobs on my underwater housing – focus, aperture, shutter and trigger – an eccentrically-hued roll of film in my camera and a pair of hefty strobes that occasionally fired in unison when triggered but flashed with absolute reliability when there was a short circuit, gremlin or leak. There was a water-detecting alarm that I soon learnt to ignore. In fact I’m secretly proud of some of the photos I took even as the alarm was sounding and a red light appeared in the viewfinder window. Indeed, it was only when the alarm was sounding and the strobes were discharging in rapid flashes that things were likely to be serious. But it was progress of sorts: prior to those wildly unreliable electronic flash guns there were the flash bulbs of which about 50 per cent worked – though many exploded killing the subject. This accounts for the upside down fish in early underwater photographs. These were the dying days of diving with a watch and decompression tables – and if you were serious that watch was the original, clunkingly functional PloProf that doubled up as a second weight belt. Decompression computers were just around the corner – and when they arrived they were cruel. I remember ignoring the flashing instructions of an early model (↑ASCEND NOW↑) and instantly being sentenced to 135 minutes of decompression at 18 inches.

Grey Reef Shark, Sanganeb, Sudan

It was a time when The Buddy System was open to interpretation.
For underwater photographers, their camera was their buddy. Now please don’t misunderstand me: I think every diver has the right to practice The Buddy System on every single dive (s)he ever does regardless of the conditions or purpose of the dive – ditto, incidentally, anyone who wants to do wreck or night dives. But I don’t want to hear about it. By far the most dangerous thing I’ve ever encountered underwater is a certain overgrown member of the zooplankton community that runs out of air, panics, gets bent, narked, exhausted, lost, has equipment malfunctions and blunders in front of my camera in a chaos of limbs and bubbles.

In the days of underwater film photography you had 36 chances to screw up and usually did.
Then I met an underwater photographer with a digital hous
ing and a self-satisfied smirk who kept muttering that he had embraced the future. This consisted in 28,501,277 shots per dive in superfine poster-size image mode, all automatically and flawlessly exposed and in perfect focus. You’d think I would have jumped ship, but no: it just looked like 28,501,277 chances to screw up. I was deterred by the 6,588 knobs, dials and buttons protruding from this fellow’s snazzy digital housing and the terrifying learning curve that they implied – a learning curve that clashed with my unshakeable belief in the acronym KISS. If I struggled at 150 feet down to remember f11 at 3 feet to calculate exposure, what chance did the digital wizards have of even knowing which buttons to push in those mind-blurring depths?

Caribbean Reef Shark, Walker's Cay, Bahamas

But now the future is here.
The young Turks proudly display their dazzling digital images – images in which each pore in a rampaging shark’s snout is frozen in microscopic detail, images in which the species of shark is identifiable from the razor sharp serrations of the teeth in the gurning mouth – and, like the Ottoman calligraphists of old who refused to embrace the printing press, I sigh at my impending extinction. But I’m not extinct yet. All photographs are photographs but not all photographs are pictures. It is only when the photograph captures the moment that the picture emerges. There are of course many kinds of moment but in the case of sharks in shallow waters – on coral reefs for example – there is the moment where the shark and its setting click. This is the moment when the shark-as-devil-fish-from-hell (to use Sonny Gruber’s expression) changes into something different: something formidable yet beautiful that thoroughly belongs.
It is the tension between Thanatos and Natural History.

Bull Sharks, Walker's Cay, Bahamas

The pictures presented here are mostly from just two places.
One is a specific soft-coral-festooned coral head on Sanganeb Atoll in the Red Sea. The other is Walker’s Cay in the Bahamas. If Beqa Lagoon has the world’s best bull shark dive then Walker’s Cay once had the world’s best bull shark snorkel – even if it gained an unjustified infamy thanks to a certain self-proclaimed ‘shark behaviour expert’ who sacrificed his calf muscle in the name of shark porn and pseudoscience.

deserve better than this: they deserve to be filmed and photographed – whatever the medium or mechanism – not as a means to an end but as an end in their own right. Indeed, I think the photos presented here are struggling to be pictures though where they fall short is apparent enough. But this is their strength compared to a photograph where the issue doesn’t even arise. Perhaps this is an area where the young Turks with their digital cameras loaded with 28,501,277 shots, nitrox, rebreathers and sane dive computers, can take underwater photography further down the road from craft to art.

Grey Reef Sharks, Sanganeb, Sudan. Of interest, this white-tipped Indian Ocean color variation was once thought to be an own species, C. wheeleri but later lumped back under C. amblyrhinchos.

Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch has, over the
years, combined a love of writing with photography: when writing about a subject illustrated with his own photographs, this allows him to bring an individual perspective to the topic. His photography started when he was a scuba diver bewitched by the underwater world. Intrigued by the challenges of photographing sharks and coral reefs, these were the subjects of his earliest books before he branched out into other marine subjects including mangrove forests. Equally fascinated by ancient history and recording the spellbinding remains of past peoples, he has since moved into archaeology and large format photography. This, to date, has resulted in richly illustrated books on ancient Egypt and the endless ruins of Anatolia, Turkey.

Bull Sharks, Walker's Cay, Bahamas


The Saffron Pimpernel said...

Encore! Let's hear more from you, esteemed fossil, tennis ace and Beethoven afficionado! Come on back in, the water is lovely and sharky still...

OfficetoOcean said...

Author of the best factual shark/human book ever and a huge influence on me. Count me in as a big fan as well! :)

Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch said...

Thanks for the nice comments David and 'The Saffron Pimpernel'. Shouldn't that be the 'Yum-Yum Yellow Pimpernel'?

Gary said...

Bravo Jeremy!
You have always been the epitome of a gentleman diver who managed to keep us all in stitches of laughter with your droll, albeit, insightful sense of humor! Brenda and I have fond memories of watching you experiment with every known island rum drink concoction possible at the Walkers Cay watering hole! I also fondly remember bouncing a few fish carcasses off your head when you were snorkeling with our bullsharks! Hey, it was my bizarre sense of humor.....and I just wanted you to get that great up close and personal bullshark "bite" shot! All joking aside, it has been an honor to know you and indeed you do represent a dying breed of us old school image takers! Your efforts to promote shark education and conservation thru the Shark Trust Foundation was an uphill battle and began when those kind of endeavors were not so popular! You are a fearless and respected pioneer in shark conservation! Well, fearless until you have to stand up and speak in front of a room full of people about your work! (Forgive me for unmercifully teasing you in Birmingham, England for your "stage fright" affliction!) We salute you my friend and kudos to Mike for showcasing your remarkable work! (Do I still have a guest room available at your English country digs.....!!!??)
Much Love to you old man from Brenda and Gary Adkison

Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch said...

Ah such fond memories of Walker's Cay, Gary. I remember when the guests were gone or out of the water and just spending time snorkelling with those docile bull sharks: calm sea, calm sharks, sea grass swaying as if to a silent Hawaiian tune, a soft breeze playing across the surface in tranquil ripples... And then a dead fish bouncing off my head and 15 crazy bull sharks everywhere - and you on the shore grinning...

...No wonder I took to the rum punches.